When Alex Caruso first checked in for the Lakers at his first Las Vegas Summer League with the team, I remember sitting on press row, frantically flipping through the media guide to figure out who this balding, probably chain-smoking, clearly 10-year veteran of the European leagues that the Lakers had signed for one last NBA shot was. After a few minutes, I figured out that he was actually an undrafted 23-year-old from College Station, Texas who had spent the prior year in the G League.
So yeah, my first impression of the fan-favorite guard we’d later come to know as The Bald Mamba was pretty far off, but I wasn’t the only one. It turns out that Luke Walton’s coaching staff was also pretty confused about Caruso before his first summer league in purple and gold. South Bay Lakers GM Nick Mazzella — who helped put Caruso on the team’s radar — recalled the story in an excellent profile of Caruso’s journey to this point from Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated (emphasis mine):
After the Chicago camp Mazzella persuaded Lawrence to have his client join the Lakers’ 2017 Summer League team in Las Vegas. When Caruso first met the Lakers’ coaching staff, they largely had the same reaction as most everyone else. “At the Summer League first practice, one of the coaches called me over and said, ‘Who gave the UPS guy a jersey?’ ” says Mazzella.
First of all, I absolutely need to know which coach this was. While they were probably kidding, in my head cannon, I am choosing to believe that Jesse Mermuys genuinely thought that a UPS guy had stopped at the UCLA Health Training Center to deliver a package, seen a spare jersey sitting around, rushed onto the court to start dominating a pickup game without anyone stopping him, and then made the team as a result. Honestly, I wish this were what actually happened, and we should just pretend it was as we continue to build the urban legend of Alex Caruso.
This exchange also presents a hilarious dichotomy with current head coach Frank Vogel’s first impression of Caruso.
But kidding or not, the quote also led to what I don’t feel like is an overstatement to say is the greatest cover in the illustrious history of Sports Illustrated:
And look, as a fellow follicly challenged American, I feel safe in saying that Caruso does not exactly look your typical NBA role player, even without UPS cargo pants photoshopped on. He’s had to overcome unconscious bias of that appearance with his far above-average athleticism and superlative basketball brain on both ends of the floor for his entire journey from undrafted player to the NBA. The entire time, people have wanted to chalk up all the attention around him to Lakers fans overhyping a balding bit player. But while he’s admitted he’s enjoyed some of the memes, Caruso has also clearly always burned to be more than just an internet joke. He expects to succeed. Just because the internet is surprised doesn’t mean he is.
Now, no one will question whether Caruso belongs ever again, and he’s popular enough that he just got a multi-year shoe endorsement deal. Whenever they make his inevitable biopic, they should just add this UPS part in though. It might make how overlooked a key championship contributor was in the G League for so long more believable.